Should we be happy or sad about this? No adult fiction titles in top sellers.
(Excepts are from a Guardian piece by Jonathan Franzen)
A lot of people think Jonathan Franzen is a pompous git but I suspect he is vilified for speaking his mind and not being afraid to shake up the received wisdoms. I loved ‘The Corrections’ and enjoyed ‘Freedom’. This article is a mea culpa for an earlier essay he wrote critical of those who (in his opinion) mislead people by suggesting we, as a global community, still had time to avert devastating climate change. I thought he had some interesting things to say about writing that I’ve collected here.
Essays are like fiction writing
‘To me it was especially not evident that a think piece should follow the rules of drama. And yet: doesn’t a good argument begin by positing some difficult problem? And doesn’t it then propose an escape from the problem through some bold proposition, and set up obstacles in the form of objections and counterarguments, and finally, through a series of reversals, take us to an unforeseen but satisfying conclusion?’
‘Sometimes, in ordering the elements of a familiar story, you discover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did. Sometimes, especially with an argument (“This follows from that”), a completely new narrative is called for. The discipline of fashioning a compelling story can crystallise thoughts and feelings you only dimly knew you had in you.’
Essays against the ‘silo’ effect
‘Trump and his alt-right supporters take pleasure in pushing the buttons of the politically correct, but it only works because the buttons are there to be pushed – students and activists claiming the right to not hear things that upset them, and to shout down ideas that offend them.’
‘And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.’
‘Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming.’
(Equally substitute indigenous Australians for indigenous Americans)
I haven’t read Egan’s award-winning ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’ (2010) but ‘The Keep’ (2006) appears to be a precursor re her interest in metafiction, the use of intertextual devices etc. The ‘hero’ here is Danny, a New York dude who arrives in an unnamed Eastern European town because a childhood friend, Howard, sent him a free airfare and he had to get out of New York for crossing some underworld types. Danny strikes out at night to find the castle that Howard is renovating, intending to turn it into a hotel. There is no light, strange undergrowth and an impenetrable wall. Danny is dragging a portable satellite dish with him because he can’t stand to be out of touch with his NY friends. Funny how this plot device is redundant now, just ten years later, such is the perils of the speed of modern technology for writers.
While the smart-talking Danny could have been irritating, he is actually quite funny, and because he’s self-deprecating we forgive him his cynicism. He does get into the castle and find Howard (who after descending to drug-addiction etc. after a childhood trauma has made a motza out of bond trading) who is a sort of Steve Jobs figure to a horde of back-packer volunteers who are doing the renovation for him. There is also a tough-guy offsider called Mick who Danny recognises as a ‘number two’ figure to the great man, because Danny, too, has played the ‘number two’ role to some ‘number one’ men as well.
Things start to get decidedly stranger from here. There is a weird pool in the castle grounds where Danny sees strange shapes move beneath the water. There is also a keep where an ancient baroness (My family have lived here for generations and you can’t get rid of me – we saw off the Tartars and we’ll see off you etc.) is holed up.
Meanwhile we meet another character, Ray, who is doing time for murder and undertaking a writing course in gaol run by Holly. Ray finds he is good at writing and it provides him with the release from his predicament he craves (his cell-mate gets his release by listening to messages from a ‘radio’ he’s made out of a cardboard box). It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ray is actually writing the story about Danny and the castle. His fellow prisoners in the writing class ask newbie questions like: ‘Did this happen to you Ray?’, ‘You’re Danny aren’t you?’, ‘I don’t believe you could make this seem so real if it didn’t happen to you’ etc. As well as writing, Ray is falling for the teacher, Holly.
As the story progresses we find out that Danny has played a part in the childhood trauma suffered by Howard, and he (Danny) begins to suspect that Howard has brought him to the castle to wreak some form of revenge. Danny experiences a number of mishaps that may or may not be affecting his mind – with a supreme effort he manages to escape to the nearby town. Waiting around he buys an antique map of the castle, and when he can’t get out of the town and goes back to the castle, Howard thinks he’s a hero for finding the map that shows some ‘missing links’, i.e. tunnels that thread beneath the castle. These tunnels play a part in the denouement which neatly connects Danny, Ray, Howard and Mick.
Egan runs a fine line, messing with the readers’ sense of suspended disbelief, but it is so much fun, and Danny turns out to be such an endearing character, that she gets away with it.
Currently available from your friendly Big Issue vendor – The Fiction Edition 2017. This comes out once a year and is a best seller for The Big Issue and great for the writers involved (including yours truly this year) because it has a wide readership. As well as some ‘big names’ like Matthew Riley, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, other writers are selected through a submission process – there are 14 stories in total. I got stuck into my copy, reading the other writers’ stories on the long commute home from the launch, and was totally absorbed. The short story is a really great way to fill in time this way. What a pity, then, they are not included regularly in magazines and newspaper as they were in the old days (I am always amazed when I read about the writing life of authors in the 50s, 60s and 70s and they seemed to have actually been able to make a living from selling short stories to these outlets). Now you have to submit to the rare anthology by people like the Margaret River Press, to competitions or to literary magazines – all of which have fairly small readerships.
Stories that stood out for me in this issue were Toni Jordan’s beautifully paced and atmospheric ‘Sound is a Pressure Wave’ (gorgeously spooky) and Nina Cullen’s acute and funny story about a mother and daughter trying to overcome misunderstandings while doing a meditation session together, called appropriately ‘Breathe’. I also liked Emily O’Grady’s ‘Blue India’ where your sympathy is first with the father/grandfather who visits his son’s family for Christmas from his care home, but as the story progresses your sympathy is tested. On a similar theme of aged care, Allison Browning writes a beautifully poignant story about one partner of an elderly gay couple having to make the awful decision on behalf of the other. Couples is also the theme of
Romy Ash’s story ‘I Bought These Dogs to Show Him How to Love’ where a young city couple encounter a rough-around-the-edges older couple who are selling their service station business to them ‘in the middle of fuck-off nowhere’. The young couple are maybe seeing their future in the bickering older two, but nah, they’re not like that. Understated and done mostly through dialogue, this is great short story craft.
The the Big Issue vendors will keep a few copies of the fiction edition to sell alongside with the usual editions over an ended period of time.
A Lovely Way to Burn – Louise Welsh
From the Wreck – Jane Rawson
‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ is a hybrid novel – part dystopian thriller, part crime novel. Ex-journalist Stevie is working as a presenter on a TV shopping channel in London when an epidemic of illness strikes, people call it ‘the sweats’. Like a flu outbreak, no one thinks much of it until people start dying, quickly. Stevie is initially oblivious and waits in a bar for her new boyfriend to turn up, when he doesn’t she goes to his flat and finds him dead. Maybe its natural causes but she succumbs herself to the sweats before she think much about it. When she recovers (one of the few, it transpires, who do) she finds a letter to her from her boyfriend, a successful paediatrician, asking her to deliver a laptop to another doctor at the hospital where he worked, and to trust no one. As she tries to carry out this request, she has to navigate a London slowly shutting down as more and more people die. To make matters worse, it looks like someone is prepared to bash her, or worse, to get their hands on the laptop.
Stevie does all the normal things a crime character has to, interview people, follow up leads, outwit the masked man following her, piece together the puzzle that goes deep into clinical trials and corporate greed, amid a populous getting more and more desperate. I liked the way that the pandemic starts slowly and societal structures work for a while, and some people (including Stevie) try to carry on as normal for as long as possible. The detail is all there: choked hospitals, eerily quiet roads as people are instructed to stay home, outbreaks of vigilantism and random violence. Stevie is tough but aware of her own vulnerabilities, and the brief relationship she has with a computer hacker who helps her is a welcome respite against the horrors all around.
The hybrid nature of ‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ reminded me of another novel I’ve read recently: Jane Rawson’s ‘From the Wreck’. This is an amalgam of Australia historical fiction (it is set in SA in the 1860s) and science fiction. You might think ‘steampunk’ but the novel is a far cry from that. It is really a thoughtful exploration of loneliness and being ‘other’. The novel centres around George, a steward on a ship that is wrecked off the coast of South Australia. While the survivors are slowly dying of starvation, a strange woman appears among them – she may or may not be Bridget Ledwith, one of the passengers. George and this woman are the only survivors but the woman disappears soon after they are rescued.
George is forever after affected by the strange things that happened to him on the wreck. Meanwhile a sea-dwelling being from another world has seized upon him as their first contact with a human. The creature is desperately alone: ‘They are gone home and I am here and I am a million years too late’. To stay near George, the being fuses with George’s son Henry who develops a precocious interest in arcane (mostly natural history) knowledge. Another character Beatrice Gallwey, hard-drinking and tough, moves next door and we think she may be worthy foil for our extra-terrestrial. The interaction, and self-interest, of these four characters plays out to an ending that was, for me, unresolved. Rawson set herself a massive task to get these strands to work together; I enjoyed the parts: the other-worldliness of the creature, Rawson’s depiction of the rambunctious George who is alternately self-assured and terrified, her lovely portrait of young Henry who is at once enhanced and used by the creature, and the self-contained and cold Bea who pleases herself (below the radar) in a conventional society. Mixing these strands together didn’t quite work for me but it was interesting to go along with the ride wondering where this strange story was heading to next.
My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore & What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera
There is a similarity in these novels, although one was written in 1982 and the other is 2016. Moore’s novel is set in lush, tropical Hawaii and is centred on a young, uncertain teenage girl, Lily. Lily’s mother is beautiful but prey to bouts of mania and depression, and Lily’s father, Sheridan, a doctor at the local hospital (and also a wealthy plantation owner) is remote. Of course Lily and her sister and brother always take their dreamy, wilful, imaginative mother’s side against their father. Munaweera’s novel likewise has a heady, exotic setting: this time Sri Lanka. We meet the narrator as a young girl; her mother is also beautiful, but like Lily’s mother she is never confident in her marriage as she comes from a lower social cast than her husband. The father, here, is similarly remote: a university professor this time, and also independently wealthy so that he gets his way, cloistered in his study, while mother and daughter bend to his will.
In both novels we see the parents through the daughter’s eyes – and the lens is coloured. They see their parents as are remote, quixotic, unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous. Not surprisingly the girls look elsewhere for companionship: Lily with a Japanese boy, Tosi, informally adopted by Sheridan but who acts as a servant, and the girl in “What Lies Between Us”, with a yard boy, Samson, as she follows him around in the burgeoning garden and watches as he cleans the pond slick with lilies and fish. Both author’s reveal a love for the beauty of their tropical childhoods, and the descriptions are evocative and ravishing.
However, and not unexpectedly, there is trouble in paradise (in fact the girls are never at ease and this sense heightens the sights, smells, sounds of their lush islands). The danger and thrill surrounding Lily’s mother, Anna, is beautifully suggested in an early scene where the family, sans, father, swims out to an underwater cave. Only Lily dives under the water, following her mother, into the dark entrance and it is Lily who has to remind her that they should return before the tide is too high and they are cut off. In the case of Munaweera’s heroine, tragedy strikes in a drastically-described rainstorm, with a wild and rising river and its suggestive undercurrents. She is quickly packed off to a new life America where a suppressed memory ticks away waiting or its incendiary moment. Lily also faces a tragedy in which she is unwittingly a contributor, and she also becomes an exile, flitting from place to place, island to island, with her young daughter, and the faithful Tosi in tow. (If you are wondering, ‘my old sweetheart’ is the mother’s term of affection for Lily).
There is an languor and sadness about Susanna Moore’s novel; perhaps there is a suggestion of colonial guilt, there is certainly a sense of personal guilt, but this is all played out in a dreamy sort of way that reminded me of those other wonderful tropical novels ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys and Richard Hughes’s ‘High Wind in Jamaica’. There are no neat solutions, just small victories, small moves forward, redolent regret.
Munaweera’s novel fell away for me when the narrative moved to America – while the narrator’s relationship, and having a child, is well-described, I just wasn’t very interested in it. The author shapes the story as a mystery/thriller as we know from the beginning that the narrator has committed some sort of unforgivable crime. I felt this imposed a rigid structure on something that could have flowed more naturally and more organically
My criteria for top book is simply the book I loved the most. I guess that is the book that resonated the most, that moved me, that drew me in to an absorbing, interesting world, that had characters I wanted to spend time with. On the whole I don’t read a book unless I think I’m going to enjoy it. The only exception is our book group books which I’m obliged to read. Luckily this year they were all good and interesting in their own way: Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’, Lily King’s wonderful ‘Euphoria’ (based on the life of Margaret Mead), Eggers’ spot-on Facebook/Google satire ‘The Circle’ and Imbolo Mbue’s flawed but fun migrant story ‘Behold the Dreamers’.
The first three are all honourable mentions as is Margret Atwood’s acute and wonderful ‘Stone Mattress’ (the book, a collection of stories, is uneven, though, but the title story is brilliant). Commendations also to Lucy Wood’s ‘Weathering’ – an atmospheric, moving and spooky tale set in a rain-drenched fenlands, and Atwood’s other wonderful and strange classic ‘Surfacing’ that somehow I had missed out on reading all these years – first published in 1972, if you can believe it. Joanne Harris’s ‘Gentlemen and Players’ was a satisfying, twisty thriller that I think they are making into a film.
But drum roll, or, more aptly, sit down quietly under a mango tree and sip a cup of Darjeeling – my favourite was ‘A Golden Age’ by Tahmima Anam. This wonderfully moving, sad and understated novel follows the lives of a mother Rehana and daughter Maya and son Sohail, at the time when Bangladesh was fighting for it’s independence from Pakistan. The novel captures you from the opening lines:
Dear Husband, I lost our children today …
How would she begin to tell him?
She got back into the rickshaw with the children … the graveyard was dotted with dusk mourners. They tossed flowers on the wet pelts of grass that grew over their loved ones. In the next row a man in a white cap cried into his hands. Beside him, an old woman clutched a spray of bokul.
Rehana held the round palms of her children.
‘Say goodbye to your father,’ she said, pointing to Iqbal’s grave.
The rest of the novel is Rehana’s explanation to her dead husband about what happened to her and their children. To get her children back from the court who has given custody to her wealthy brother in Lahore, Rehana scrounges money to build a house in her backyard that she rents out so that she can say she is financially independent. She is happy to be a widow cooking and having friends over and bringing up her children – feminist Maya and university radical Sohail. History, of course, steps in.
I’m conscious that this description would probably not draw anyone to read this book but, as with the best novels, it is not the plot: it is the atmosphere, the characters who get under your skin, the sense of the richness in human existence, shadowed by things none of us want to face.
I have Anam’s follow-up novel ‘The Good Muslim’ that follows Maya’s life to read this year.
- For the stats. Five male writers out of 33 books. Two memoirs, one non-fiction, one classic, eleven fantasy or spec fiction, three crime, the rest general fiction. I will try to up the classics in 2017.
This book, a history of the Salem witch trials is the darling of the critics, and the dud of the reader. “J K Rowling meets Antony Beevor, Stephen King and Marina Warner” says The Times quote on the cover. ‘Schiff’s writing is to die for’ it effuses. Um, no. Schiff has taken a fascinating, utterly compelling subject and sucked the life out of it to leave a dried husk. Her convoluted, tortured sentences while perhaps, elegant, inventive and even witty on their own, when compiled one upon the other just serve to obfuscate an already extremely complicated and detailed account. No one can fault Schiff for her research: it is meticulous and wide-ranging. As well as getting the actual events of the accusations and trial, we get an account of the colony of New England, the land disputes and administration of Salem and surrounds; the family backgrounds and histories of the ministers, the judges, the governors, the scribe for the trials etc. etc. To complicate matters further, these accounts often form lengthy diversions interspersed through the narrative dragging the reader down intricate, detailed and boring rabbit holes. One wonders if the critics actually read the book they reviewed.
To be fair to Schiff, the lumpiness of the book is probably due to the type of documentary evidence available – we have the court records (though these are not complete and are often filtered through the opinion of the recorder), land dispute records, and histories of the officials (all men). There is a big gap in that there is little known about the teenage accusers (all female), and what is known is eked out by Schiff so that her take on the genuineness, or otherwise, of the girls is only revealed towards the very end of this lengthy account. Often the girls are described as though they are one shrieking, contorting entity.
I started out reading this book so angry and exasperated by what happened to the initial witches who were hanged – one was a beggar woman, and another sharp-tongued and opinionated: the type of women outsiders who fitted the medieval witch type a neighbour might accuse, but another, Rebecca Nurse, was a kind 71 year old church goer. Schiff goes to great length to establish that there were tribal enmities at work in the community in the form of lengthy land and inheritance disputes, and that this may be part of why some people (women and men) were accused, and how other people could be easily found to also testify against them. The Nurse clan did all they could to save Rebecca (such as getting up a petition), but to no avail.
At the beginning of the book it seemed incredible that the word of the accused girls could have been taken at face value. It all started with two young girls, ten and eleven, the daughter and niece of the local minister writhing and screaming, and saying they were being tormented. In the late 17th century, mishaps and misfortune was often attributed to witchcraft, and the church, including the puritan church, accepted the reality of the devil and demons. This meant the minister spent time at their bedsides praying and trying to work out who was bewitching them. The minister’s Indian servant, Tituba, was only too willing to interpret the girls’ visions. Schiff describes her as a ‘a brilliant raconteur’, her testimony ‘a hypnotic performance’ – her fulsome description of witches’ activities and rites set the scene for the accusations and confessions to follow. Schiff writes: “It was as if Tituba had handed out hallucinogens. The terrifying, psychedelic confession, rather than the voodoo of legend, was her contribution to the events of 1692.”
As the narrative progresses (as we begin to understand that leading questions are allowed in the court, that the gang of girls and young women accusers are able to writhe and shriek in court and say they are pricked and punched, they can fall to the floor when an accused looks at them, and to cry out that they see witches and their familiars – invisible to all except them – sitting on the rafters: all without being questioned themselves) you know that there is not going to be any common sense, compassion or fairness in the trials. One thing that riled me was the so-called ‘touch test’. The idea was that if one of the afflicted girls was touched by the witch, their symptoms would cease because the ‘power’ was reabsorbed back into the witch. Of course this test could be easily verified by blindfolding the girl and having a few different people touch her to see if only the touch of the accused worked but, no, they didn’t blindfold her, they blindfolded the accused!
The other truly exasperating thing, is that the court was run by educated men, and at this time it meant educated at Harvard. It was never really explained how such men closed their ears to any dissenting voices – they were forever sending letters to senior churchmen in Boston or New York senior asking for their advice on the matter, and then ignoring the advice. For example, they were warned not to rely on ‘spectral’ evidence alone – this is the visions of invisible witches, their familiars, accounts of being asked to sign the devil’s book etc. – yet often evidence used to convict was of this sort. The ridiculous touch test was supposed to be true evidence, and so was used extensively.
But all my outrage at the goings on was suffocated by the detail and diversions, and oblique writing of Schiff – you can’t continue to be angry when you are ploughing through convoluted prose trying to work out what the hell is going on. I also thought the throw away ‘wit’ of Schiff, her tongue-in-cheek jokes, ironic remarks etc., deflated the true horror of what I was reading. Perhaps this was intentional – a way for Schiff to deal with something so confronting and frustrating, and for the reader to deal with it too. It may also be used as a way of hinting her position while maintaining a seemingly objective stance.
“Villages scratched their heads over enchanted fireplaces, ambulatory trees, and misplaced saucers but were more circumspect about those oddities, participating in another New England specialty: that of leaving things unsaid. After the acoustical runaway of the witchcraft crisis – the voices rising to a fever pitch – 1692 left in its wake a thundering reticence.”
As hinted here, there is little satisfaction to be had at the end of the book. Schiff does give some explanation but it is too little, too late. What she does achieve is to throw the reader into a maelstrom of detail to show that there is no easy explanation – there are one or two unreconstructed villains but she presents most participants as honestly trying to deal with an inexplicable problem: the seeming outbreak of the devil’s work in New England. Most people involved, including the accused as well as the accusers, the clergy and the authorities, did believe in witchcraft. At the height of the scare, hundreds of people were accused and arrested.
It is understandable that once the first cohort had been hanged proclaiming their innocence, that the judges could not admit they were wrong, and so were obliged to go on finding guilt, and signing execution orders. It is understandable that the accusers might be hysterics and truly afflicted by pain and visions – the very constricted lives of women and girls at the time contributing to this. It is understandable that people were afraid and lashed out, and that they accused others first for fear of being accused themselves later. SPOILER ALERT But other things are unforgiveable: the torturing of teenage boys into accusing their mother and others, the pressing to death of seventy-year-old man who would not confess, dragging a woman from her sickbed into a cold, crowded, lice-filled gaol where she died; women left to give birth on the gaol floor; the manacling of a five-year-old accused girl, who saw her baby sister die in front of her, and whose mother was hanged (when this orphan was finally released after eight months she was insane and would remain so for the rest of her life); the corrupt appropriation of the property of the accused etc. etc. There was no redress for these many crimes and there were only a few confessions by those involved that they had put innocents to death. Only one of the accuser girls later admitted to fabrication; she had to do this to be allowed back into the congregation. It is interesting that, although this issue of fabricating the whole thing is pivotal to a modern understanding of the trials, it didn’t appear to be the crux of the matter for the people of the day. Except for the one confessor, none of the other girls were held to account: they grew up and led ordinary lives, apparently.
All in all, “The Witches”, is a frustrating read. I would have dearly loved Schiff to be a more straightforward writer, her literary hijinks just complicated things for me. I do admire her, though, for making me see things through the eyes of people living in another time and place, however uncomfortable that process was.